Ayahuasca — a pharmacologically fascinating psychedelic brew

August 12, 2010, 10:49 pm

The Guardian (U.K.) posted a story this weekend describing how the psychedelic infusion ayahuasca is being taken up by members of indie musical groups such as the Bees and the Klaxons. In this, they are following in the steps of such musical forerunners as Sting and Tori Amos

Ayahuasca tea has been used for centuries by shamans in the Amazon river basin as part of healing rituals. The general idea seems be to awaken and confront ones worst fears and feelings, and then purge them through intense and violent vomiting. Thus, some enthusiasts consider ayahuasca sort of like ipecac for the soul. However, first-hand accounts make the actual experience seem quite unpleasant and psychologically dangerous. The experience  is well described in an article by Kira Salak in National Geographic Adventure.

Pharmacologically, ayahuasca is quite interesting. It is commonly made by macerating and boiling together parts of the plants Banisteriopsis caapi and Psychotria viridis. Neither of these plants, taken alone, has psychedelic properties. P. viridis does contain DMT, a psychedelic tryptamine that acts — as does LSD and mescaline — at the 5-HT2A receptor. However, because of first-pass metabolism, this compound is broken down by the enzyme monoamine oxidase before it ever reaches the systemic circulation. As it happens, B. caapi contains several beta-carbolines — harmine and harmaline — that act as monoamine oxidase inhibitors. These MAOIs prevent the breakdown of DMT.

Although not much reliable clinical information about ayahuasca toxicity has been published, forensic toxicologists from the Office of the Armed Forces Medical Examiner have reported that onset of action is 35-40 minutes, with a duration of 3-4 hours. They note that subjective effects include nausea, visual and auditory hallucinations, and altered sense of time, along with elevation of diastolic blood pressure. (J Analytical Toxicol 2005;29:838)

Another musician who has experimented with ayahuasca is Paul Simon. This experience is clearly reflected in the lyrics of his song “Spirit Voices”:

Thanks to DoseNation for posting a link to the Guardian article.


  1. precordialthump Says:

    Hey Leon,

    wade Davis has a great talk on endangered cultures on TED.com. He talks about his own experience of Ayahuasca at about 11 min 25 sec here:


  2. Neuroskeptic Says:

    Just avoid Chianti and cheese while you’re tripping.

    Speaking of drugs, have you seen this tragic case of oral cocaine poisoning?

  3. poisonreview Says:

    Thanks for the comments!

    precordialthump: Very interesting talk by Wade Davis. He brings up a point I had thought about when reading the literature on Ayahuasca: among all the tens of thousands of plants in the Amazon basin, how was it discovered that two of them worked synergistically to produce visions and hallucinations? Trial and error does indeed seem unlikely; after going through hundreds of combinations of foul-tasting, emetic — but psychedically inert — brews, you’d think any rational shaman would have given up.

    Neuroskeptic: thanks for the link. I Had not been aware of that amazing case.

  4. precordialthump Says:

    Leon –
    I may be a cynic, but expect someone probably just got lucky way back when. Perhaps there are thousands of undiscovered concoctions out there waiting to be discovered… The amazing thing is that anyone could remember which plants they’d used after the trip 😉

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